The writing on the wall: is commercialism killing street art?

red wall with repeated london graffiti

By Dalia Dawood 

Years ago, I walked past a big brick wall in Shoreditch, and painted onto that wall were giant letters in a bold typeface. They spelt out: V A N D A L I S M 

Against a silver-grey backdrop, the black letters were framed by a white outline that made them appear three-dimensional as if forcing their way out of their depressed, brick-layered bastille to smack each passer-by with vigorous defiance against the laws of surface and society. 

In this part of East London, almost every exposed area is vulnerable to the impending swipe of a spray can, but I found these painted messages shouting all over the city. They dressed shop shutters and tattooed the sides of buildings. ‘BRILLIANT’ read one, which to me they were, bringing colour and curiosity to the streets. ‘SCARY’ said another, as was their proliferation, popping up and disappearing like moles as authorities frantically bopped them out of sight in an attempt to ‘Keep Britain Tidy’. This alphabet art, depending on your perspective, lettered or littered the streets. 

shoreditch street art spelling out scary

SCARY, Shoreditch [Flickr: Berit Watkin]

A few years later, I saw them again. This time, the letters didn’t cover bricks, hoardings or shutters; they were arranged in an orderly, geometric pattern on silk. 

G R E A T
A D V E
N T U
R E
S 

Read the neon-style, multi-coloured artwork. It repeated in a rotation, framed by two recurring words that formed a border around the edge:  L O U I S V U I T T O N.

These letters are the work of street artist Ben Eine. An ‘English graffiti writer and vandal’, says his WikipediapageEine’s paintings had moved from illicit markings on the street to a £465 scarf in a collaboration with the designer fashion brand. This is one, but certainly not the first, example of the communion between two ostensibly unmixable arenas: disobedient street art and mainstream commerciality. To some, there’s another way of putting it: ‘selling out’. 

Division exists within the scene about the controversial collaboration between brands and street artists. For some, the writing on the wall says that street art’s increasing popularity brings increasing commercialisation that asphyxiates the movement’s anarchic spirit. It’s not just big businesses that elicit animosity: artists who work with them are in the firing line and often deemed mercenaries.

But what constitutes ‘selling out’? Some view brand collaborations as the ultimate no-no, while others see selling your work in galleries for a profit as hypocritical, given street art’s anti-capitalist rhetoric. Then there are artists who are commissioned by advertisers to produce advertising murals, using the iconography of street art. For each, there are arguments about the extent to which such ventures are damaging, or not, to the street art subculture. 

Eine’s brand collaborations go further: he has worked with Zippo lighters on products and Virgin Airways to exhibit and sell his art to ‘upper-class’ passengers. Many others have followed a similar trajectory. London-based D*Face teamed up with Schott NYC for limited edition jackets and British motorcycle company Triumph to create custom hand-painted bikes.

New York artist Futura 2000 went from illegally painting the city’s subways to tagging major brands’ goods, including Nike, Stussy and Hennessy. KAWS started out subvertising billboards and bus shelters — making parodies of corporate and commercial ads — in the 1990s, and has since taken on several commercial endeavours, from packaging for cosmetics brand Kiehl’s to clothing for Uniqlo and projects with Vans and Comme des Garçons. 

london scene on graffiti

Shoreditch Graffiti [ Dalia Dawood]

If an artist is paid to boost a brand’s ‘cool’ credentials, does it go against street art’s recalcitrant spirit? “That’s the hypocrisy,” says British artist Nick Flatt. “Producing ‘rebellion’ at a price. It’s nearly inescapable under a capitalist system.” Artists need to sell products to make more work, he says, “but to directly aid in the marketing of a brand’s identity must be labelled selling out. Once it becomes commonplace the movement loses any credibility as anti-establishment.” 

Street art belongs to a subculture where order plays truant and iconoclasm punctuates almost every painting, stencil or paste-up. Many pieces are illegal and political, designed to provoke and intrigue with their flagrance and swift execution. This is an art form that’s “not for sale” and “free from the dictates of the market place”, argues Henry Chalfant, a graffiti photographer and videographer, in his introduction to Cedar Lewisohn’s book Street Art: The Graffiti Revolution. Yet the market often finds ways to cash in on what’s ‘cool’. The tension isn’t just economic; Irony sees it as a type of cultural appropriation. 

In a Camden pub, I prepare to meet the artist. I cast a glance at the scatter of punters who have made the space their shelter on a wet Monday afternoon. I don’t know who I’m looking for: a man, a woman, older or young. The anonymous artist, for obvious reasons, prefers their identity to remain hidden.

We exchange messages over Instagram and I give a brief description of myself. Moments later, the person sat behind me in a high-vis jacket picks up their mug of coffee and places it on my table, extending a hand as they perch on the seat opposite. “Hi.” I’m not sure what I was expecting, but the artist is surprisingly nondescript. Softly spoken, Irony is vocal on the topic of brands and street artists. “They’re trying to buy the people who like your stuff, to cash in on their goodwill. I’m never going to sell my audience to them. I don’t consider the people who like my stuff to be a commodity.” 

In 15 years of ‘painting on other people’s property’, Irony has seen artists who have attempted to be pro-establishment to gain success, ‘but it never works’. “The companies aren’t interested in helping you, it’s about exploiting the work for a profit. You can’t go in as a weak agent in a system of power and expect to succeed.” Despite scepticism, Irony is conciliatory about the reasons for some of their peers pursuing commercial paths. “I’ve met these guys’ kids… it’s hard to talk down to people who take on jobs with advertisers to pay the rent. I can’t say ‘you should let your kids starve’.” 

Even street artists who, on the face of it, appear to have a strong anti-commercial stance are moderate — or perhaps circumspect — in their opinions. Endless’s provocative works are pasted all over London. You’d recognise them as the paste-ups of famous brands’ products, such as Coca Cola cans or Chanel fragrances, that have been modified to bear his name.

spray can grafitti on wall

Spray can [Dalia Dawood]

Given the irreverent way they’re presented, his works seem to make a belligerent comment on commerciality. Yet on working with brands, Endless is oddly equivocal. “I believe [artists] are finding a way of living while making a living,” he says, diplomatically. “The word ‘sell-out’ is often used by other jealous artists or people who can’t see the bigger picture.” 

He explains that his work ‘is not anti-anything’ but more a comment on commercial and modern day living. “How we as a society worship material objects, brands, celebs. These have become our new religion, for better or worse, you decide.” The artist claims not to have worked with a brand — nor is he opposed to the idea. “It would all depend on the brand and how much freedom I would have with the work.

Dedicating your life to your art is the ultimate rebellious spirit. After all, no one did art to be told how to create.” Artist Fanakapan has a similar approach. “It depends if you respect the business,” he says. “I did a job for Converse but I turned down good money from Capital One credit cards and Barclays. Coke or McDonald’s paying you loads of money to feature your work in an advert is selling out in my eyes.” 

When it comes to working with brands, integrity, it seems, is key. But what of it when exhibiting work in a gallery or selling at auctions? In response to a comment on his website asking, “Why are you such a sell-out?”, Banksy, who has been criticised for selling his pieces in art institutions for hundreds of thousands, responded: “I wish I had a pound for every time someone asked me that.” Institutionalising urban art is nothing new.

Since top graffiti artists such as Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat began tagging the New York streets in the 1970s and 1980s, they were soon recruited into established galleries that helped propel them to international success. One such show marked graffiti’s major step into the fine art world, 1981’s ‘New York/New Wave’ at the Museum of Modern Art, featuring more than 100 artists, some of whom would go on to bigger things, such as Kenny Scharf and Lee Quiñones. 

But success from selling art can be problematic to a culture that prides itself on subverting the mainstream. Take legendary print shop Pictures On Walls. A piece of street art history, POW took the chaos of the unregulated art market and made it accessible to the public. It discovered artists, launched careers and made art available to all. A-listers of the scene, including Banksy, began by selling pieces there, but POW’s accomplishments became its downfall.

Visit the website today and you will see an image of a graveyard, rows of wonky tombstones trailing across the screen. In the foreground, engraved with a skull and crossbones (look closer, they’re actually paintbrushes) is one that reads ‘POW 2003–2017’. Disaster struck, they claim, when their artists became popular. The acceptance of street art into mainstream culture meant the art they produced became ‘another tradeable commodity’.

Prints were now worth tens of thousands of pounds and street art was officially entrenched in the conventional art world. “Either unable or unwilling to become part of the art market we once so self-righteously denounced,” POW announced on their site, “we called it quits.” 

Despite POW’s demise, it hasn’t signalled the end for street art’s underground credentials. In fact, many artists I spoke with appeared united on this point: “Selling a painting is not selling out”, as Pure Evil, the artist with his own eponymous East London gallery, puts it. It gives people access to your work, many claims, and the fact is that commerce is as enmeshed into the culture as a community. Cedar Lewisohn’s book makes this clear in a Jeremy Deller-esque diagram that visually maps the history of this relationship.

A tangle of crisscrossing scrawls shows the myriad connections between street art and tagging. Money and commerce sit in the middle. Along with neighbouring branches advertising, corporate sponsorship and the mainstream art world, they are consequential to what are now ubiquitous art movements. Would the Harings and Basquiats of the movement have gained international recognition had ‘corporate’ money not changed hands? 

gucci mural graffiti on big wall

Gucci mural [Dalia Dawood]

 “Most people think I do street art, so I do everything for nothing. I’m an urchin who paints walls and does work for nothing.” Eine talks with candour on the phone when I ask him about this. The artist behind the alphabet letters, I had seen his prolific work but not the man himself. I find pictures on his Instagram account.

A middle-aged man who is so heavily tattooed — one image of his hand shows a Basquiatian small crown at the tip of his index finger and a Haring-like eye punctuated with three lines on the middle finger — his skin is a graffitied mural. Two stars flank the crown of his head, which is bare except for a prickle of light-brown hair fuzzing out at the sides and descending onto his face in a small scruff of a beard. Thick, black-rimmed glasses perched on his nose.

His smile reveals a gold front tooth. Given his sketchy start as a graffiti writer dodging the police (he has been arrested more than a dozen times), perhaps ‘urchin’ was once an accurate description. Now, though, Eine is among the most successful on the scene. The nasal voice on the line reasserts: “That’s the first misconception about street artists, that we just paint for nothing.” 

Few like Eine are fortunate enough to call their art their living. For the 48-year-old, once success kicked in, a rebellion had to be traded for responsibility. Graffiti culture, for him, is something reserved for the young, mirroring their attitudes: carefree, uninhibited, dangerous. 20 years ago, he and fellow graffiti writers fell into that category. “We just wanted to paint stuff and have a laugh,” he recalls. But they got noticed and had to grow up fast. “People started wanting to buy our stuff and we evolved into artists. We’re not fucking kids who run around tagging things any more. Now it’s actually my job. I’m making money out of this now.” 

With growing fame, Eine swapped street tags for price tags on products that bore his designs. (“I’m a luxury brand”, he tells me earnestly). His signature typography style appeared not only on the Louis Vuitton scarf but have even hung in the White House after David Cameron gifted Eine’s piece ‘Twenty First Century City’ to Barack Obama in 2010. “It’s a job,” he repeats. “I’ve got two ex-wives and a bunch of kids, so I don’t even see any of the money, but it’s my living. If I didn’t have commitments, the ex-wives, the kids, I’d go back to doing it illegally. But I have to make money.” 

He’s far from the first to catapult his career into mainstream ventures. Haring used his fame to delve further into the commercial market, collaborating with brands and advertising campaigns including Swatch and Absolut Vodka in the 1980s. Even posthumously, fashion labels continue to don his designs on their wares, including the current SS18 collection by Coach. In 1986, Haring opened The Pop Shop, making his art accessible to the public.

grafitti spelling out 'star' in silver

Star grafitti [Dalia Dawood]

Critics called the artist a ‘sell out’ for making his work available to the masses on the cheap: posters went for a dollar, buttons with his iconic ‘Radiant Baby’ design sold for 50 cents. Already a commodity in the dollar-sign filled eyes of the gallery-industrial complex, Haring sought to do his own commodifying, on his terms. “I wanted it to be a place where, yes, not only collectors could come, but also kids from the Bronx,” he had said. “I assumed, after all, that the point of making art was to communicate and contribute to culture.” 

If this is true then advertising that co-opts the rebellious underground through ad murals, according to many street artists, does the opposite. “They’re lame as hell,” says Pure Evil. “It happened with skateboarding where they used skateboarding Tony the Tiger to sell cornflakes. Now car ads have street art urban stuff in it. It’s wack as hell.”

Has he ever produced work for an ad? “No, I haven’t done it. Burger King asked me to paint hamburgers, but I said no. I’m a vegetarian.” Fanakapan shares his sentiments: “It’s killing the charm of what we do and making the wrong people rich.” But if it makes the ‘right’ people better off — i.e. adds to an artist’s pay packet — some find no issue with it. “I often think, would I rather see a hand-painted advert on a wall with a talented artist making some well-earned cash, or see one of the endless massive TV screens that plague our cities?” says artist D7606. 

Then you have guides, such as Dave Stuart, whose Shoreditch street art tours aim to show the diversity of the area’s public gallery. “I don’t have a problem with it,” he says. “That’s the nature of how advertising companies operate, but it’s not street art. It’s advertising.” For this reason, none such works appear in his four-hour long tours. “A crew of graffiti writers might be paid to do a beer ad, but I never show that to anyone.” 

On his blog, Stuart drew attention to a venture by English artists dr.d and Chu. Worship the Ground, a ‘personal street art message delivery service’, allows anyone to have a short message temporarily painted onto the streets. Example photos show various messages stencilled onto the pavement. ‘Myles! You, me, a night on the tiles?’ reads one. For a fee, you get your message sprayed onto the street (choose from one of 10 colours) with no risk of getting caught. 

Legally, it’s slippery, though the website claims the service is lawful as long as the markings are removed ‘within 48 hours of notification.’ Culturally, it’s even harder to pin down. It sways somewhere between artistic enterprise and money-making venture. Even dr.d has trouble attaching a definition: “It’s part art, part business, part social experiment.” The service, he says, is ‘more of a collaboration, you direct the action.’ 

“Many pieces are illegal and political, designed to provoke and intrigue with their flagrance and swift execution”

The site does not accept advertising, though if you read between the lines this may be less to do with deterring corporate businesses from imposing profit-making agendas and more bound by legal implications. Under UK civil law, advertising in public spaces requires planning permission, meaning Worship the Ground would have to pay a fine if they accept ads.

As it is, the business skirts the rules of flyposting legislation by complying with the 1990 Planning Act, which allows authorities to remove illegal works ‘after providing two days’ notice where this information is given on the poster’. dr.d explains this in vaguer terms: “It’s not an area covered definitively in UK law, hence the social experiment…” 

Can such ‘experiments’, with their monetary and gimmicky attributions, be damaging to the piratical street art scene? “If you remove the money it becomes an art project,” Irony points out. “If you add the money back in, does it become something else? People are more nuanced, they can see this and street art are two different things.” 

More to the point: does it matter? Culture, like art, is fluid, arbitrary, man-made. Street art is constantly being reshaped and driven by public attitudes, but for many artists what it boils down to is that which drove them to pick up a spray can and apply it to a wall — or canvas, or product — in the first place: making art that is accessible to everyone.

To this end, money matters and even amplifies street art’s refractory nature by strengthening two qualities many artists feel both they and their work should possess: impact and integrity. “It provides opportunity,” says Dubai-based Myneandyours. “A dialogue is opened up with the public whether it’s under the cover of darkness or protected by a permission. 

“Today, being anti-anything is more a mindset rather than an attack,” he says. “It is the belief and care that we have a duty to help protect ourselves from those who won’t, and to contribute positively to an environment that we depend on.” Greater commercial opportunities, he says, enable artists to ‘positively effect in greater numbers’. “It’s up to you whether you’re in for the ride or not.” 

“I’ll tell you a story,” says Eine, sharing a moment from his own exhilarating ride. “A friend of mine back in 1989 did an illegal rave in Vauxhall. He got Keith Haring to come along and tag the side of the wall. My friend cut it out of the wall and he kept it under his bed for 20 years. Then a few years ago he asks me if I want to buy it… so I spent £12,000 on a Keith Haring. It’s the most money I’ve ever spent on anything. It’s just a doodle on the side of a wall, but I bought it. If we have some small impact on someone with our work, that’s what it’s for. That’s what we do.” 

I think about the ‘Vandalism’ wall and ‘Louis Vuitton’ scarf, both made by the same hand, and their respective impact. I check Eine’s Instagram again. His latest post shows a stencilled series of aluminium paintings bearing a phrase that, in a way, seemed to sum up what every artist, for or against, had tried to express. On whichever side of the line, here is a motto by which all are bound: 

I
S T A N D
H E R E
F O R
A L L T H E
R I G H T
R E A S O N S 


Featured image by Dalia Dawood